This sentiment is particularly true in the case of a young Nigerian teacher named Henry Anumudu. Motivated to fix the education system, he abandoned a promising career in Communication and Media in 2017 to become a pioneer Fellow of Teach For Nigeria.
This took him to a primary school in Abeokuta, Ogun State where he teaches a class of 82 from not-so-privileged families. But he doesn't just teach. Seeing their limited resources and how it can negatively impact their education, Amudu took it upon himself to do what he can to tackle their problems.
He does this with his own money and with help from kind-hearted strangers who provide access to books, examinations, school fees and even low-cost housing for the families of students when necessary.
In honour of World Teachers' Day, Business Insider Sub Saharan Africa reached out to this inspiring teacher for an insightful conversation. Here is a lightly edited and condensed interview with Mr Anumudu:
Business Insider Sub Saharan Africa (BISSA): Let’s start with the obvious question, what made you leave your job in Media and Communications to teach in a public primary school in a low-income community?
Henry Anumudu (HA): The entire story began with LEAP Africa. I volunteered for its iLEAD programme in Abuja while I worked in Communications. This gave me a first-hand experience to the dynamics of our public education system. And for the first time, I stood at the other side of the classroom and saw the power of education to bring out the best in people, and transform the mindset of children.
Then, in 2017 a friend mentioned Teach For Nigeria to me. I was curious and I started researching this organization. As I scoured the website, I found this webpage called “The Crisis”, and for the first time, I saw the catastrophe of the Nigerian education system. But beyond seeing a problem, I was challenged. Teach For Nigeria told me a story; it told me there was no single solution to the systemic problem of education in Nigeria. What it was doing, therefore, was to build a formidable movement of determined Nigerians who will stand up to the challenge. That was the beginning of my transition to the education space.
I became a teacher because I want to be a solution to the complex problem of education in Nigeria, and more importantly, show the children who would be in my classroom that life gives so many possibilities beyond what their immediate environment may offer. So, I resigned from my job and became a classroom teacher, under the Teach For Nigeria fellowship, working in a public primary school in Ogun State.
BISSA: How did your family and loved ones take it?
HA: Oh, my mother could not, for the life of her, understand what her son was doing. I tried to explain but it was just impossible for her to wrap her mind around. At some point, she came to terms, “you are smart, I’m sure you know what you’re doing,” she said. But, it did not stop her from trying to sway me out every single time we spoke.
But every other person in my life was not surprised. “Henry is the type of person that will decide that”, a friend mentioned once.
BISSA: You have gone beyond just teaching to creating various avenues to help make life easier for your students and their families, why was this so important to you?
HA: I had no choice, really. I began with a primary 5 classroom with 82 children. Very few of them could read well, and a good number could not work out simple additions in mathematics. It was a poor situation. But I was optimistic, passionate, and fired up to make dramatic changes in my classroom.
I lunged in, but I failed again and again and again. Nothing was changing. I failed too many times that doubt began to creep in. “Was I even capable?” I began to ask. Maybe what they needed was God, not me. Because it would take a miracle to bring out transformational change.
One day, I was leaving school very late in the evening and I met Timileyin — one of my pupils — at the school gate. He had this bowl expertly balanced on his head. “Mr Henry what are you still doing in school?” he asked.
As I spoke with Timileyin, in front of the school, I had an epiphany. I realized I didn’t know Timileyin. I mean, I know Timileyin, the 12-year-old troublesome boy in my class. But I didn’t know Timileyin the boy who hawks soft drinks and sachet water every day after school. I didn’t know that boy. And because I didn’t truly know him, it had been difficult to teach him. It had been difficult to connect and create the impact I desired, and so passionately wanted.
I realized I had been teaching Timileyin without cognizance for his lived experience. Our entire education system teaches children from low-income homes like they were privileged. It forgets, we forget, that the children sitting in our classrooms must hawk every school day, after class, for at least 3 hours. And when they get back home around 6 or 7 pm will also have to do house chores, because most times they are most house girls and house boys — not living with their parents.
Children like these will only learn when they are deeply motivated to learn, and when there’s a connection between their everyday experiences and their classroom experience.
So, I had no choice. To move my classroom from zero to one, I had to go outside the classroom and build relationships that will give me the currency with which I will demand hard work from the children.
But then, when you bond, when you build a network of human connections in the classroom, you are also connecting with the pains and joys and history of the families and children. You become burdened with knowledge; You know too much too look away; you become too connected to leave. So, I began to do my best to make life easier for the children. I would get a new house for a family, buy food for a family going through hard times, raise capital for the small business of a mother, create a menstrual pad bank for the girls in class, fund the food, transport, and fees for a child who lost their mother, and so on.
I didn’t do this alone either. I had help from one of the amazing community online, especially on Instagram, they showed up every time we needed something to make life easier for a child. I had remarkable support from Teach For Nigeria who equipped me with the professional development I needed to be the best teacher.
Also, It was because I did these things that I recorded an exponential increase in literacy rate in my classroom, in two years. So, you see, I had no choice.
BISSA: You also have a mentoring programme, tell us why it is so important to create this in addition to the great work you are already doing for these children?
HA: Yes, I do have a mentoring programme. It is one of the three pillars of the work I do with SharingLife — a nonprofit I founded. I created the mentoring programme because there is a critical gap that has to be filled. Most children living in low-income communities in Nigeria lack good models. Some of the children in my classroom live in communities where their next-door neighbours are hoodlums or women of easy virtue. And we all agree that what we take in from our environment to a large extent, define what we think and what we become.
Most of the children are aware of the limitations of their environment and they are searching for a way out, and asking questions. The answers they get will shape their worldviews and may go on to define the rest of their lives. So, now that they are impressionable and teachable, we must show them all the possibilities the world has in store for them, and equip them with the skills needed to pursue their dreams.
So, using technological solutions such as simple phone calls, and WhatsApp video calls, we connect children from low-income communities with other amazing Nigerians in Nigeria or anywhere in the world. For example, we have a 12 years old boy, who has to hawk to support his mother economically, connected to a young Nigerian who is a Business analyst in Lagos. We also have a 14-year-old girl, who lives in Abeokuta but dreams of becoming a lawyer, connected with an attorney who lives and practices in the US. We have seen, first-hand, the importance of mentors in the lives of these children. It keeps them focused academically, and holds them accountable behaviorally while equipping them with the skills needed to thrive in the 21st century.
BISSA: What do you think about the educational system in Nigeria? Any ideas on how to revamp our educational sector?
HA: This is probably one of the most popular questions in Nigeria right now! Any attempt to revamp the education sector must begin from the teachers. At the end of the day, the purpose of school is for children to learn and be able to solve problems. And Teachers are the single most important factor in making this happen. So we must invest in our teachers: create access to meaningful professional development opportunities, improve teacher remuneration, etc.
When society takes care of its teachers, children in the classroom will be taken care of. When social media discovers a dedicated teacher, everyone goes agog with praises. Dedicated teachers, in Nigeria, are a wonder to behold: that’s a sign that something is wrong. They should be a rule, not an exception.
Teachers, too, must take leadership of their classrooms. Too many teachers prefer to be compliant instead of innovative. To be fair, this is due largely to the management style which teachers are under, where teaching is managed like a factory work instead of a vocation that demands the whole person.
BISSA: You have been teaching there for over a year, what has been your best and worst moments so far?
HA: My worst moments were definitely at the beginning of my journey in the classroom. I was still inexperienced and was just learning the ropes. The children showed me pepper. I went home every day with a headache. This was also added to the literacy problem in the classroom. So, I was struggling to solve behavioural and academic issues at the same time. Those were the worst moments. Thankfully, we were able to solve those problems, and we moved to other problems. Better problems.
Some of my best moments were those times when the children executed what I did not teach them. Those occasions take my breath away. For example, they once organized themselves, contributed N20 and bought wastebaskets for the school. They wanted to solve the litter problem, so they did that on their own. I had no idea. I just came to school one morning and saw new wastebaskets everywhere. I was proud. There are so many other examples where they showed empathy or applied something we had learned in class to solve a problem. Those are my best moments.
BISSA: What it’s like to be a teacher in a digital age?
HA: This is a good question. One of the best gifts of our digital age is boundless resources. I spend hours sometimes looking for new and easiest methods of solving maths problems, and the best methods to demonstrate a scientific fact to the class. Being a teacher in the digital age is being able to enrich the content of your lesson, and also update your knowledge in a snap.
Sharing your stories with the world through digital channels is also one part of being a teacher in the digital age — and if I dare say, a necessary one. Two years ago, I started telling my story, sharing my journey in the classroom, mainly via Instagram and more recently on LinkedIn. As I did this, something started to happen.
Young Nigerians began to listen, to appreciate the impact one teacher can make in the classroom. I began receiving messages from students in the university, studying Education, who tell me they are motivated by the passion they see on my page. I got a message from a young lady who just finished her NYSC and got an admin job at Federal University, Wukari, Taraba State. She told me she had always wanted to be a teacher. That the stories I told rekindled her passion. She told me she had spoken to her boss that she would love to be transferred to the staff school to begin as a teacher.
I get messages like this every day. And it brings up the thought within me, perhaps the digital tools are the medium through which we can redeem the teaching profession from the poor image it has suffered for years. Perhaps by telling our stories better, as teachers, we can make a dent in the problem of education in Nigeria.
HA: Teaching is not for those who have the dream of becoming billionaires — or those who want to “blow” in our Nigerian parlance. However, if you want to affect a billion lives, this is a good place to begin. And until we pressure our government enough to improve teacher remuneration we have to be content and use our skills to create extra income for ourselves.
In the words of the former Federal Minister of Education, Dr Oby Ezekwesilli: “Henry Anumudu is an incredible chap. He’s probably one of the Best Ambassador of the Teaching profession that I have ever known.” We agree!